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By Baroness Fox
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An open book: How the Lords Library is keeping pace with modernity

Lords Library (Credit: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo)

6 min read

“A colleague the other day asked [a] chatbot…who the librarian was in the House of Lords. It came up with the wrong name for a start. It was the name of a colleague who is no longer here, who had nothing to do with the library. I was thinking, ‘hang on a minute, where did you get this from?’”

Patrick Vollmer, the House of Lords librarian and director of library services, is questioning, as many are at the moment, how artificial intelligence (AI) may shape his industry’s future. As we speak, Vollmer slides a copy of The Library magazine across the desk. Inside is a piece written by his colleague about their experience of asking a chatbot to complete a typical library inquiry.

“I won’t spoil the fun,” he jokes, “but it is perhaps still going to be a journey before we can replace researchers and librarians with AI. You are still going to require somebody to understand what a member is asking, or what the debate is about,” he continues, “and I’m not convinced you’re ever going to be able to pick up the nuance of that through a set of algorithms. I might be completely wrong, and in 10 years’ time, there might be a hologram sitting here or something.”

It is a topic of conversation perhaps at odds with the office in which we find ourselves. Built in 1848, the librarian’s office is home to a desk designed by Augustus Pugin. On one of the tall bookshelves sits the bronze bust of Sir Edmund Gosse, one of Vollmer’s predecessors.

But the librarian himself is forward-thinking. And while AI may be a step too far, Vollmer recognises the need for innovation in the library. “The outside world is changing,” he says, “we have to change with it.”

I might be completely wrong, and in 10 years’ time, there might be a hologram sitting here or something

There is proof that change is already underway. When Vollmer started working at the library in 2002, he was one of four researchers. Now, he presides over a team of 14 researchers. “When I joined, we did very few pre-prepared briefings, it was mainly inquiry work, which is fine, but the volume of it was quite overwhelming,” he says. “A team of four researchers was quite small to do what we were doing. And over the years, things changed; they gradually ramped up.”

When Vollmer became head of research in 2013, he decided to introduce pre-prepared briefings to the library. “A lot of the incidental inquiries have fallen, because they are answered by the pre-prepared briefings,” he says. “It means that the questions members do ask are much more technical, and we can add a lot more value to them.”

These briefings are all published online for everyone, including the public, to see. In the last full year Vollmer says these briefings have received 850,000 hits. “You can engage a lot more as a private individual with what’s going on in Parliament,” he says. “You can be briefed about a debate, either before or after it’s happened.”

Patrick Vollmer (Credit: Lords Library)
Patrick Vollmer (Credit: Lords Library)

Vollmer has also focused on modernising the library’s work environment. He mentions how there is now greater emphasis on employees’ well-being, ensuring they receive regular feedback from line managers, and can book holiday outside of recess. “The service has become a lot more professional,” he explains.

Our conversation is peppered with such corporate terminology: the library is “adding value”, employing “quality control processes” and operating as a “service”. Does Vollmer see the running of the library as a business? “[Using business terminology] sort of clarifies why we are here,” he says. “You know, they’re our customers, we need to provide a professional customer service.”

It is a service that many peers depend on says Vollmer, with the core usership matching more or less the average daily attendance to the Lords. “There are members that come to us before every single debate they’re going to speak in. There are members who will come to us if they’re thinking of pursuing a policy area long term, so they come from initial inquiry, and then they will come back and back and back.”

The library’s ability to provide reliable information to returning “customers” is its selling point, says Vollmer. “People expect you to be able to respond to a request much quicker than you could perhaps in the past,” he says. “And that’s great. But there’s also then a downside of actually – what’s the provenance of the information that you’re retrieving? Is it actually pucker as it were? And that’s where having skilled researchers and librarians really comes to the fore. Because they can then ask: where’s this come from? Is this really something that a member should be citing in the chamber?”

But, the librarian says, the library’s impartiality is its reason for being. “I have often thought, particularly when fake news was a lot in the press, of having massive posters printed saying: ‘Worried about fake news? Come and see the library.’” While Vollmer’s posters are yet to appear, his message is clear to see – on the pens, library guides and bookmarks emblazoned with the library’s slogan: ‘Impartial. Authoritative. Timely.’

Lords Library in mid-19th century (Credit: Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo)
Lords Library in mid-19th century (Credit: Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo)

If the library’s services are ever in doubt, Vollmer urges members to come to the team with feedback. He gestures again to The Library, which contains information about how members can issue feedback. “Our members are very polite, and they are very gracious and sometimes one does need to ask a little bit further: ‘Why do you like that? What do you think we can do better?’ Because if people don’t tell us we don’t know.”

For Vollmer, the library represents a community, where staff can feel more involved with parliamentary decision-making, and peers can feel confident in the information propping up those decisions. Vollmer paraphrases R. David Lankes, professor of librarianship at the University of Texas, who believes that “good libraries build collections, great libraries build communities”: “I think that’s a really strong point. And if you look in the outside world, it’s exactly what other libraries are doing,” he says.

The library itself was designed by Augustus Pugin to resemble a fanned open book, Vollmer says, and is the only place he can think of in Parliament where Members can work unobserved. “The only people allowed in the library space are library staff, and Members and staff of the House can come into the staff area, but the rest of it is just for Members. And it’s a quiet space. It’s a contemplative space. They write speeches, they read papers, they read books, they have discussions with each other. Nobody’s observing them.” It is a space that Vollmer “guards very carefully”.

As the Lords head into a busy summer – with the Levelling Up Bill, Online Safety Bill and EU Retained Law Bill all potentially requiring library assistance – does Vollmer feel confident the library can continue its high level of service under pressure?

“It is really, really difficult to predict, but we do have to be – and it’s an overused word – but we do have to be agile. And we have to be able to adapt. And we have to be able to take on anything that is thrown at us.”

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